LIVINGSTON, NJ — The story of a Livingston native’s “journey through Poland's countryside as a war of nations thunders around them” was the heart of the discussion at the Livingston Education Foundation’s (LEF) second annual Community Book Club held at Livingston High School (LHS) on Monday night.
LHS Class of 1987 graduate Ann Arnold, author of the novel “Together: A Journey for Survival,” detailed to community members how she came to bring her father, Mark Schonwetter’s, story to life. Through historical photos, personal anecdotes and family stories, Arnold’s novel paints a picture of her ancestors' experience in Poland during the Holocaust.
LEF President Greer Gelman, who has known the Schonwetter family for 40 years since meeting Schonwetter’s other daughter, Isabella Fiske (LHS Class of 1990), in first grade at Harrison Elementary School, explained why she selected this novel for the Community Book Club read.
“I always knew Mark was a Holocaust survivor, but never really understood what this meant until I read Ann’s book,” said Gelman, whose older brother was also classmates with Arnold. “I knew how it affected me and how important it is to share this story of survival and hope. I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity for the story to be shared with the community in which Mr. Schonwetter proudly lived and raised his family, and where he still resides today.”
In addition to educating readers about the realities of the Holocaust and displaying the strength of a mother's love, the book also highlights the courage of good people during the worst of times.
Schonwetter, who moved to Livingston in the mid ‘70s, attended the event with both of his daughters as wel as his wife, Luba. Stories of the Holocaust took on a deeper meaning as he addressed the audience on Monday.
Sharing some of his life experiences, Schonwetter described hiding in the woods from the Nazis with his family, escaping a ghetto that was about to be “liquidated” and making his way to America. As a United States citizen, Schonwetter worked his way from sweeping floors to a successful career in the jewelry industry.
During his comments, Schonwetter emphasized the kindness of those who took his family in, protected them and sheltered them—all at risk to their own lives.
“I think we had a good turnout, and everybody who came was so moved by the story that was told,” said Gelman. “Even the people who couldn’t make it all said to me that they heard it was incredible and that they wished they could have been there, so I think the feedback was really tremendous again."
Gelman was especially moved by Schonwetter's message hope and kindness after all that hate that he has experienced.
“I think it’s incredible that we have somebody who lives in our very own community who is able to stand up and tell his story with his daughter," she said. "A lot of people who were there have known him for so many years but never even knew what he had endured, so it was just very powerful.”
The program concluded with a question-and-answer session, during which Schonwetter was asked for his best life advice.
“First of all, enjoy your life,” he said. “Then, live with friendship to everybody. Don’t get involved in fights. You may have a disagreement with somebody, you may have a different view from somebody—that’s normal in life, but don’t look for hatred…it will not get you anywhere. You are better being kind to everybody, and you will accomplish so much more in life.”
The family’s connections to Livingston Public Schools (LPS) continue today, as Schonwetter’s grandsons, Jason and Jared, are both current students at LHS. The junior and freshman attended the event on Monday along with Arnold's daughter, Ashley, whose sister, Lexy, is in college and was unable to make it. The family is pictured above during a VIP reception hosted by the LEF prior to Monday's book talk.
Also at the event were all members of the Livingston Township Council as well as members of the Livingston Board of Education among other local dignitaries, including Essex County Freeholder Patricia Sebold.
Sebold, a longtime Livingston resident, said it was an “unbelievable experience to hear firsthand how horrible people can be” and that she would never forget the terrible but amazing story of Schonwetter’s survival.
“Within the unimaginable disregard for human life, there are remarkable stories,” said resident Pamela Chirls, who provided feedback about the event only as an individual and not as a member of the board of education. “We are fortunate that they educated us in these deeply personal ways about the Holocaust.”
Both Sebold and Chirls as well as many other community members have taken to the LEF Facebook page in the days since the event to commend the organization on its hard work to bring alumni and their stories to the Livingston community.
The LEF’s mission is to “provide school-community partnerships and shared resources that will not only enhance educational opportunities for Livingston Public Schools, but continue to grow an involved, thriving community.” Over the years, volunteer efforts and contributions from individuals, school organizations, local sponsors, and alumni have allowed the LEF to support school related initiatives that benefit LPS students.
Proceeds from events like the Community Book Club allow the LEF to provide opportunities for the LPS community, such as recent highlights like donating to outdoor classroom and garden-based learning projects; providing technology such as tablets, white boards and cameras to LPS classrooms; awarding scholarships; and creating an alumni association.
The executive board includes Gelman as president; vice presidents Liza Lowenberg and Nicole Lynn; treasurer Stefanie Lichtstein; co-secretaries Jodi Eisner and Melissa Lowenthal; and Livingston Board of Education liaisons Samantha Messer and Buddy August. Donations to the LEF can be made through PayPal; Venmo (@LEF-Livingston); or through the LEF website.
EDITOR's NOTE: Michelle Bent, communications and community outreach coordinator for Livingston Public Schools, contributed to this article.